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Himalayan border tensions between China and India turn violent

The world’s most populous nations, both nuclear powers, are locked in a deadly face-off over a contested border high in the Himalayas. Tensions in a decades-old dispute between China and India have boiled over recently, with 20 Indian soldiers dying under murky circumstances in the treacherous Galwan Valley. Stephanie Sy reports and talks to Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: the world's two most-populous nations, both nuclear powers, in a deadly face-off on a disputed border high in the Himalayas.

    Stephanie Sy has the story.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, that decades-old border dispute between China and India centers around the fact that there is no clear border.

    What is called the Line of Actual Control stretches across the Himalayas. Tensions have run hot over the last month in this frigid place. Those 20 Indian soldiers died in murky circumstances in the treacherous Galwan Valley. There were no firearms, and there was no confirmed word of Chinese deaths or casualties.

    For more on this dispute, its history, and where things go from here, I'm joined by Alyssa Ayres, who's senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's also a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

    Alyssa, thanks for joining us.

    Briefly explain the roots of this conflict.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Thanks, Stephanie. Thanks for covering this important and worrisome outbreak of tensions.

    It's important, first of all, because these are two nuclear-armed powers that share a border that they don't fully — they have not delineated this border in any way. After more than 20 rounds of border talks over the years between India and China, it still hasn't been accurately demarcated.

    So you can see, without the ability to determine where claims begin and end, there's going to be differences and disputes over the border. And that's what we see happening. That's what's been unfolding over the course of the last month.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do we know specifically, Alyssa, what led to today's confrontation?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    No, we do not.

    And I'm looking for more reporting. All the reporting we have had so far has been coming from the Indian side, from Indian media. It appears that they were in a process of de-escalating. These tensions have been going — ongoing for weeks, as you noted, since early May.

    And in this process of de-escalating, somehow, things came to blows.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We're hearing reports of at least 20 Indian troops that have been killed, and no official confirmation from the Chinese side, but also, reportedly, that the Chinese used iron rods and stones.

    I want to ask you, Alyssa, what are the risks of escalation into some sort of armed conflict?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    That's obviously what everyone's worried about.

    When you have a standoff of this nature, when you have, again, two nuclear powers that have a border standoff, you always worry about what the possible path of escalation could be.

    Now, again, it had seemed that this was going to be a process of de-escalating, after a series of both military and diplomatic consultation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I imagine that no side wants war at this time or at any time. So, what would you expect to unfold next from a diplomatic perspective?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Right.

    I would very much hope that they continue the process of de-escalation. But I don't think we should make any mistake about the fact that, when you see, suddenly, all of a sudden, after more than four-and-a-half decades, troop fatalities in this way, it does raise concerns.

    So, I can't imagine that there's going to be any more sanguine attitude in New Delhi about further de-escalation without seeing very a significant de-escalation from the Chinese side.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And this is, of course, with both India and China, but especially the former, under tremendous pressure right now because of a pandemic.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Well, there's a pandemic. The Indian economy had been slowing even prior to the onslaught of the pandemic and the need to shut down their economy.

    And, of course, with the coronavirus shutdown, the economy has just had the rug pulled out from under it. They were looking at a decline of something like 45 percent in the last quarter, according to a Goldman Sachs report. This is a real concern.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Alyssa, does the U.S. have played any role in a de-escalation process between these two major powers?

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Some of your viewers may remember the president's famous tweet of volunteering to mediate.

    Neither India nor China are looking for a mediator on this issue. They have their own bilateral channel, albeit one that hasn't had success resolving their border dispute all these years. But I don't think there's a real opening.

    I do think the United States should place a priority to watch this closely. And I do think the United States should signal that territorial assertiveness — we are seeing territorial assertiveness on China's part around the whole region — is not acceptable.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Alyssa Ayres with the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks so much for joining us with your expertise in this region.

  • Alyssa Ayres:

    Thank you. Thanks, Stephanie.

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